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The Christmas story is more than the idyllic picture of stars and shepherds and the birth of a baby in an animal stall. It’s also about an amazing story of God’s justice and his Mission, contrasting attractional and missional messages in the Christmas story. It begins with the faith of a young girl from Nazareth who arrives in Judah to see her relative. Her first words are:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” (Luke 1:46-49)
Mary is a walking miracle. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, she is now a pregnant virgin with a promised son. Gabriel, an angel who stands in God’s presence, makes an amazing declaration to Mary: “The Lord is with you! You have found favor with
God.” The promise to conceive came true. But would this baby boy really “be great“, and who will call him “the Son of the Most High”? How will the Lord God give to him “the throne of his father David”? How will he “reign over the house of Jacob for ever” with a “kingdom that will have no end“? This is what the young Galilean girl is pondering in her heart as she flees from the scorn of her neighbors, and apparently the temporary frustration of her fiancé, for this untimely pregnancy and walks to the city of Judah to stay with her relatives, Zachariah and Elizabeth. Elizabeth had her own miracle baby; she was old and never had children. Elizabeth was promised a child, John, who would become the prophet, calling his people to repentance and preparing the way of the Lord. At the
sight of Mary, Elizabeth feels her baby leap in her womb. In that moment, Elizabeth experiences the infilling of the Holy Spirit and exclaims a prophetic word with her joy:
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your
womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord
should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting
came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy. And
blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of
what was spoken to her from the Lord.” (Luke 1:42-45)
Without the knowledge that comes through the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth could not have known that her young niece was indeed “the mother of the Lord”. Similarly, the Holy Spirit sets ablaze Mary’s tongue as she continues her prophetic, and strangely
“And his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity for ever.” (Luke 1:50-55)
This young girl recalls God’s promises of justice and mercy and exclaims that God has already “put down the mighty from their thrones.” There is a strangely political tone here, a sense that God’s justice was coming or had come in this miracle child. Mary, no doubt, pondered things in her heart for many years. Who is this boy? Surely he cried as a baby, vulnerable and in need of the many forms of sacrificial love of his parents. We can also wonder about those growing years when Jesus worked with Joseph, his earthly dad, and cared for his younger brothers and sisters. The writer of Hebrews gives us a hint at his early years, disclosing that he “learned obedience through what he suffered“, likely including rejection due to his dubious birth (Heb. 5:8). We also know from Luke’s
gospel that before Jesus’ public ministry, he had a regular practice of standing up to read the Scriptures in the synagogue. The portion we find in the gospels after John baptizes him, after the devil tempts him in the wilderness, and after his public ministry begins. Jesus returns to his home country, Nazareth, and on the sabbath he enters the synagogue, stands, and begins to read from Isaiah 61:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” Luke 4:18-19
Right then he closed the book, something nobody expected. They wanted him to read the next phrase: “and the day of vengeance of our God“ (Isa. 61:2) Instead, Jesus gave the book back to the attendant, and sat down. Everybody just stared at him. Breaking the tension, Jesus said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21)
Suddenly everyone was happy and thought very highly of “Joseph’s son.” They too began to wonder. (v.22) That’s when Jesus seems to stick his proverbial foot in his mouth. Everything goes sour when he says:
“Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself; what we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here also in your own country.’ Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his own country. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when there came a great famine over all the land; and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” (vs. 23-27)
Jesus does not seem to care if people liked him or thought highly of him. He is not attractional; he’s missional. He just put it all out there. The people were expecting
a word of God’s vengeance, God’s promised deliverance exclusively for the people of Israel. But Jesus instead speaks of God’s initiative of grace to the outsider, the Gentile nations. Jesus gives a message of God’s Mission. What happens? All hell breaks
loose. They were all “filled with wrath.” No longer did they wonder at the grace of Joseph’s son; they rushed him and got ready to push him over a cliff. (vs. 28-29) Somehow, Jesus managed to walk away. The Day of Christmas is a day of vengeance, but it is not what most people think.
The Book of Acts is obviously Luke’s continuing historical account transitioning from the story of Jesus to the story of the Church. What’s somewhat surprising is the necessity to foster a theological perspective, or rather a missiological perspective, as you read the chronology of the early witnesses of the Good News to the Gentile nations. The fact is we would not be able to understand the rest of the New Testament without the Book of Acts.
Luke & Acts are primarily historical documents in nature. It is not a pure history. It comes from a limited perspective of what occurred in and outside the community of believers, which expanded throughout the Roman Empire. It should not discourage us to know that we will not find a purely objective history. It is value-based, biased, and a limited view of the events.
Our study of the Scriptures requires respect; no method of study will “correspond precisely to the conviction that the New Testament… comprises the Scriptures of the Christian Church.” (Achtemeier, Green, and Thompson: 12)
By having respect, I mean that we should employ a “critical openness” posture, listening respectfully and responding thoughtfully. We should examine the literary and historical nature of the documents, and at the same time understand their importance shaping the faith and conduct of communities of Christ followers through the centuries and in many cultures.
Two forlorn Jewish disciples met a stranger as they were leaving Jerusalem, the center of their world. After hearing them explain that their teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, had been crucified, the “uninformed” stranger responded, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” (Luke 24:25-26 NIV) The resurrected Jesus explained what was plainly written in the Scriptures concerning himself. Luke’s gospel concludes with Jesus’ statement that, “Repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:47 NIV)
How can this message of Jesus be pronounced “to all nations” if the Jewish people, centered within the context of a national expectation of the coming Messiah, failed to recognize him? If his disciples who walked with him and heard his teaching had failed to understand, what were the implications for the apostles who began to preach the gospel to different cultures? How do different contexts, and different centers of cultural understanding, effect the interpretation of the message? What must we therefore understand about the role of culture in the understanding of the New Testament? After feigning a continued journey, Jesus sat to break bread with his fellow travelers. In an instant his identity was revealed and he left those two disciples with hearts ablaze and compelled to go tell somebody.
In his book, Santa Biblia: The Bible through Hispanic Eyes, Justo González offers helpful insights for Biblical interpretation through cultural paradigms of marginality, poverty, mestizaje and mulatez, exile and aliens, and solidarity. Making use of these paradigms, I will argue that the reinterpretation of the apostle Paul’s identity, the misinterpretation of the gospel message across cultures over the centuries, and the challenge Paul presents to the Church to disarm principalities and powers over cultures are all necessary to overcome the temptation to confuse the message of the gospel. Understanding the role of culture is essential to understanding the New Testament and therefore the mission of the Church.
(This is the first of five posts on this topic. Look for the next in a few days.)